Wednesday, August 22, 2012

No Point? Listen Again to the Music of Revolution

I forgive the brashness of youth but that doesn't mean I allow its impertinences to stand unchallenged.

Michael Barthel has written about popular music for a number of print outlets and his work appears widely online.  It was on the website Salon that I read his essay triggered by the conviction of the three Pussy Riot  women on hooliganism charges in Russia.

The headline -- "Protest Songs Are Pointless" -- only sort of captures what Barthel has to say.  He takes issue -- sort of -- with those who recall the music of the1960s and wonder "what happened to protest songs."  Their yearning, he writes, "feeds listeners' fantasies of music as a revolutionary tool, even though its actual pleasures are far more complex than that."  Huh?

Oh, well, toward the end of his essay Barthel does recognize, sort of,  something about the "spirit" of music as a motivating force, but he quotes another, unnamed critic when he does so: "One critic got it right when he said that Pussy Riot  shows 'the punk rock spirit . . . can be a force that incites fear.' Indeed, the spirit can, but the actual music still mostly incites pogoing." Huh?

Oh, well, Barthel also makes the point, sort of, that it's OK for Paul Ryan to like the music of Rage Against the Machine even though Rage's  leader, Tom Morello, publicly scolded Ryan for being part of the very machine he rages against: "Perhaps Paul Ryan was moshing when he should have been listening."  Never mind, writes Barthel: "The politically important stuff about music isn't the 'content' of the lyrics; it's the symbolic gestures made by the people performing them." Huh?

Oh, well, if Barthel really is saying that protest music is pointless so quit longing for the good old '60s when you fantasized that it actually motivated people to, well, protest, and besides, Paul Ryan can listen to Rage Against the Machine  if he wants to because it's a free country, isn't it? -- if that's what he's saying, he's right, sort of, about Ryan.

As for the rest of it, though, he needs to bone up on history.  He probably wasn't even alive when  people, white and black, suffered and died to advance the Civil Rights Movement.  He needs to see the grainy film footage of some of those people marching down the dusty road to Selma, singing the simple melody and simple lyrics of We Shall Overcome as they risked mistreatment in prison or even death for their actions.  He needs to learn about how the wives of battered warriors for workers' rights sang Song of the Union Maid as they marched to support their men in the bloody struggle against thugs and corrupt lawmen in the battles of the coal fields, the auto plants and the rail yards.  The underdog has always marched to the music of the troubadours of protest in the unending struggle to right the wrongs of history.

Even before Beethoven tore up the title page of his third symphony to protest  Napoleon and renamed it Eroica, the music of protest stirred a great peoples' revolution in France.  Marchers from Marseille paraded into Paris in July of 1792 singing DeLisle's Chant de Guerre pour l'Armee du Rhine and the gathering insurrectionists were so bestirred that they dubbed it La Marseillaise and made it the rallying cry of their revolution.  It remains the country's national anthem and was adapted by the leaders of three Latin American uprisings as the anthems of their own revolutions.

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man ?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand ?
Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned ?

And how many young Americans were moved to defy their own country's government by  Bob Dylan's anthem?

It's probably too late to do much about the deplorable state of this country, but a new generation of Dylans, Guthries, Seegers and their ilk might at least stir up some action.

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